Drones Doing Good

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Drones Doing Good
Timothy Reuter, Founder Drone User Group NetworkPhoto: Andrew Terranova
Timothy Reuter, Founder of the Drone User Group Network, speaks with passion about incorporating social responsibility into the use of personal drones.Photo: Andrew Terranova

We’re Not Evil, We’re Just Flown That Way

Timothy Reuter started the DC Area Drone User Group to find people to teach him about flying drones. It wasn’t long, however, before Timothy and other members of the group began to think about the negative connotation the word “drone” was getting in the press, and the potential for the positive impact personal drones could have for society.

So when Timothy created the Drone User Group Network (DUGN), encouraging other regional groups of drone users to join a larger network, the organization was founded on the principle that personal use of drone technology could (and should) be done for the benefit of humanity.


The DUGN established the Drone Social Innovation Award to provide funding for the best use of low cost drone technology for a socially beneficial purpose. The prize garnered financial backing from NEXA Capital Partners and the UAS America Fund. Entries were limited to spending less than $3,000 on their drones, and had to document the positive social impact of their project in a video.

Five finalists were selected, and after a very close decision the $10,000 raised for the prize was split between two groups.

The Winners

Detecting Land Mines

CAT UAV offers aerial observation services using drones. CAT UAV’s project captures imagery of suspected mine fields. Their proprietary post-processing of the images reveals the precise location of mines.

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This method of detection is much safer and more humane than using animals, and cheaper and less destructive than using ground based robots. It also has the potential to save thousands of lives in countries where un-exploded mines are common. Hard to argue against the social benefits of that.

Helping Disaster Victims

Charles “Chuck” Devaney studied geography and cartography at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. He had experimented with using kites to collect aerial data for mapping, but later partnered with a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, David Hummer, to build an aerial drone for this purpose. David focused on making a usable drone for about $2,000, while Chuck developed methods to stitch together the aerial imagery and perform analysis.

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Linking the World (LTW) is an international organization focused on providing humanitarian aid in over 40 countries. Chuck acts as director for their UAV program. He has also worked with other humanitarian organizations to use drone photography to aid disaster relief efforts, surveying typhoon damage in the Philippines.

Other Finalists

Collecting Whale Snot

Yep… whale snot. Ocean Alliance partnered with Olin College of Engineering‘s robotics lab to create what they affectionately call Snot Bot. Snot Bot is a ruggedized quadcopter that flies over a whale and collects samples spewed from a whale’s blowhole. Though it sounds weird, marine biologists can analyze the samples for all sorts of things, from disease, to stress levels, to genetics.

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When a whale surfaces it expels mucus and carbon dioxide from its blowhole. An operator flies Snot Bot over a whale to collect this material without stressing the animal. Ocean Alliance uses data collected from whales to help inform educators and policy makers on the health of our oceans.

Expanding Perspective for Kids with Autism

Kids on the autistic spectrum tend to have difficulty understanding the perspective of other people, which is a huge barrier to social interaction. Paul Braun is giving these kids a chance to see the world through a different perspective by Taking Autism to the Sky.

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The kids in Paul’s program participate in a project to build a hexacopter, learning technical skills and teamwork. They learn to fly, plan their flight and shoot high definition aerial video. Long term Paul hopes to help the boys and girls in this program learn skills that will help them find employment.

Monitoring Political Protests

The Drone Lab at Central European University’s School of Public Policy set out to find ways drones could be used as a benefit to society. Students under Professor Choi-Fitzpatrick have come up with a methodology for estimating the size of crowds using aerial drone photography. They developed safety protocols, defined measurement techniques, and then used a drone to verify their methods.

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The school’s new Drone Lab is not stopping there. They plan to continue to develop their concepts for using drones for the public good, and become a European leader for the civil use of drones.

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Andrew Terranova is an electrical engineer, writer and author of How Things Are Made: From Automobiles to Zippers. Andrew is also an electronics and robotics enthusiast and has created and curated robotics exhibits for the Children's Museum of Somerset County, NJ and taught robotics classes for the Kaleidoscope Enrichment in Blairstown, NJ and for a public primary school. Andrew is always looking for ways to engage makers and educators.

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